This was another title in the Berlinale retrospective and the audience were fortunate in that the director, Margarethe von Trotta, was there to introduce her film. She first talked about the title of the film which was variously translated and changed during its international release; (there seem to be at least six variants). The German title is a quotation from a famous poem;
Trūb ists heut, es schlummern die Gäng’ und die Gassen und fast will
Mir es scheinen, es sei, als in der bleiernen Zeit
(Gloomy it is today, sleepy are the pathways and lanes and it seems as almost, we are, in the leaden times.) (Friedrich Hölderlin) (Translation Jane Buekett).
The last three words provide the title and a metaphor for the 1950s, a crucial decade for the story and the characters; and for von Trotta herself.
Von Trotta went on to recount how in 1977 she was with fellow film-makers who were working on a portmanteau film addressing in various ways the actions and the current trial of the Red Army Faction [often called the Baader-Meinhof Gang]; Germany in Autumn (Deutschland im Herbst, 1978). Von Trotta was not actually filming and she had a number of long conversations with Christina Ensslin, the sister of a member of RAF Gudrun Ensslin. This inspired her to start work on a screenplay, later this film, which studied the lives and relationships of two sisters. Von Trotta also remarked that the story was influenced by the Sophocles play Antigone, where Antigone is a rebel whilst her sister Iamene is more dutiful. However, in this story, the roles change as the narrative develops.
The younger, Marianne, has joined the ‘armed resistance’ in West Germany and disappeared into the political underground. Juliane is an editor at a feminist magazine and is judgemental of her sister’s radicalism. (Retrospective Brochure).
But the film develops far more complexity than is suggested in these bald sentences. Marianne is another brilliant and convincing performance from von Trotta’s regular collaborator Barbara Sukowa. Juliane, an equally good performance, though a more restrained character, is played by Jutta Lampe. We also meet their partners though the male characters pale alongside these powerful women. The exception is Jan, Marianne’s son by a failed marriage.
Early in the film we get a sense of the radically different lives and relationships of the sisters. There is a brief glimpse of the ‘armed resistance’ training with Palestinian fighters in North Africa. The film moves into it most intense mode when Marianne is captured and imprisoned. Juliane visits her regularly and we witness the emotional and sometimes overcharge relationship. We also see, in flashbacks, the earlier life of the two women, including a very strict religious upbringing in the 1950s. The ‘leaden’ 1950s and its silences on German history were a frequent target of attack for the New German Cinema.
It is in the latter stages that Jan becomes an important character. It is also the stage where Juliane has to confront her sister’s death and her suspicions, (widely shared at the time with regard to the deaths of RAF members) of her secret murder by the West German State.
This is an undoubted classic of the New German Cinema. It won the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival. The central performances are memorable, but the film is carefully constructed as well. There is fine cinematography from Franz Rath. This covers the modern apartment and more traditional family house which contrast with the grim and stark prison interiors. And exteriors range from a wintry wood to sun-baked Africa and then to the forbidding walls of the prisons. The settings and costumes, by Georg von Kieserite and Minka Hasse respectively, are excellent. The sound is fine and at times very atmospheric. And all of this is edited into a complex tapestry between past and present by Dagmar Hirtz. The now veteran composer Nicolas Economou, (recently working with Koreeda Hirokazu) produces an effective score, at times minimal, occasionally more forceful.
The film has been restored and was screened from a DCP. It seemed from memory a reasonable transfer and it was a pleasure to see this again in a cinema after a wait of many years. And now I can see it again at the Hyde Park Picture House this coming Sunday. It is one of the films directed by Margarethe von Trotta in the Independent Cinema Office retrospective programme. This is titled ‘The Personal is Political’. This is partly accurate as von Trotta, as in other films, is concerned to bring out how personal relationships feed into political issues. But it is also true that in this film, as in most of her other films, the political both determines and limits the personal. This indeed is where the film leaves us with a stark and complex scene that speaks volumes about the sisters and the future of Juliane and Jan.
The film runs 106 minutes in colour and with English sub-titles. The latter on this digital version are reasonable but in the traditional white-on-background; so occasionally, in lighter scenes, you have to focus carefully. A small challenge to what is, for me, probably the finest film made by Margarethe von Trotta. And she has turned out a number of really fine film including Rosa Luxembourg (featuring Barbara Sukowa], shown earlier at the Picture House.